Reliving a virtual past - Dennis Hamley

     A few weeks ago I made a rather disturbing discovery.  I was at first horrified and completely at a loss about what to do about it.  Then it occurred to me that I needn't be horrified or at a loss because I'd stumbled on the true glory - and even justification for - Indie ebook publishing.  I'd been given an opportunity I'd longed for whenever I had a conventional book published, but which I knew I'd never get however many reprints it went through. It's still a pain in the bum though.
     During the Edebook festival in August I'd spent some time launching my latest ebook, Out of the Mouths of Babes.  As I said in a previous blog, the book was originally published in 1997. I knew even then that the ending was rather arbitrary and posed many questions which only time and teasing the implications out of the plot could answer. Why didn't I try to follow them through there and then?  Only now, as I recalled the original experience of writing it, did I realise that it wasn't not knowing what could happen but having a fair idea of it and being afraid to write it. The implications were very serious for the characters who were left standing at the end and I really didn't want to explore them.  

Product DetailsSo when I came back after years to reread Out of the Mouths of Babes I was alarmed to see that the ending I had provided meant absolutely nothing. It was a cop-out. Nothing was decided: everything was left up in the air. A good hook for a sequel perhaps? Not so. I'd felt that I'd worked this seam out. So I decided not to republish it. I was sorry about this because I thought the novel did have some merit. It took me a while to realise that if I wanted it to live again I would have to finish it properly - a completion of the plot, not a mere postscript as I'd provided with Spirit of the Place.  The consequences of the novel's final situation must be looked at fearlessly - and they must be consequences in some sense inevitable both for two main characters and a third relatively minor character whose influence on the story is crucial.  And the effect of these consequences must be extended up to the present day - and also projected further into the future because for one character their effect is permanent.
     Now, in the rest of this blog, I shall have to be very careful of SPOILER ALERTS. Please don't get impatient with lots of nameless characters of uncertain gender. I'm trying to write about a process, not give a summary. The pictures are chosen to represent crucial events in the original story and the captions are direct quotations. 


The watcher stood in the doorway until forced away by heat and fumes. Now the top of the brick wall marking the bottom boundary of the garden was the vantage point for watching satisfying orange flames eating away at the compact silhouette and the collapse of roof and beams...It was worth the risk waiting for the fire engine to arrive, so pleasantly and inevitably too late to save the little structure. But the real target had not been there. More fires must be lit another time.
     Originally, the book was in five parts, of which three are written from the point of view of one main character.  As I said, I couldn't just tag on a postscript. It would wreck the novel's overall structure in a way which wasn't the case in Spirit of the Place, which had come to a natural ending. I had to write a completely new Part 6.
     So I spent much time pondering over how I would do it. The first chapter of the new extension was written quickly and - to my mind - satisfyingly. I was very sad about what I'd done in it to the character I liked best, the novel's shining beacon, and I think it was the consequence I'd considered sixteen years ago but was too afraid to write. But now I bit the bullet and did it and, even though the outcome was not a good one for the character, I was pleased with the chapter as a piece of writing and as a dramatisation of a psychological inevitability.
      The second chapter was really quite a joy to write.  I could make sense, both in terms of motive and personality, of an important character who'd played a big part in the novel's structure: a sort of fulcrum who, largely unwittingly, set a lot of its action in motion.  In fact, I'll go further. That character is at the heart of the novel, almost an unseen puppeteer. And now I realised that this character was much deeper than I had thought. There were motives, circumstances, psychological depths there which I hadn't suspected. Writing that chapter really opened my eyes to my own previously half-formed creation. And, as a nice contrast to the previous chapter, it was a lightening of mood: almost, though by no means altogether, comic relief.
     And then came the necessary, climactic third chapter.  So difficult.  It had to do a lot of things.  It had to dramatise shock, rejection, remorse, punishment and purgatory , a period of cauterised detachment and withdrawal, a partial recovery and return to the world, a sort of redemption and then depiction of a flawed existence and the prospect that it would last through fifty years of a leftover life.

A big agenda. But I had a go at it. After three drafts for this last chapter, I thought I'd cracked it. So I published it. And that, I thought, was that.

      I had one last look at the text in Preview and was as satisfied as I ever could be (which isn't actually very much, but that's a fate for all of us). I had the usual ghastly split-second premonition of disaster as I pressed Publish. But no, everything seemed fine. Another one bites the dust, I thought.

         Getting a lift from a private motorist these days was almost impossible.  Every hitchhiker was supposed to be a serial killer.
So he stood under a sodium lamp just where trucks came out of the lorry park onto the slip road.   For some time he was still ignored.
But, just as he thought his ears would be full of the throb of diesel engines for ever, his luck changed.  An older, smaller lorry, belching black fumes, lucky to be still on the road, stopped.  He opened the passenger door.
"OK, lad," said the driver, a man in his fifties with a grey, grizzled beard.  "I'll take you some of the way.  I know what it’s like waiting there."
Gary got in, settled back in the worn seat and was soon lost in memory again.
      The book was published on August 25th. Two weeks later I thought I'd give it a quick read through because I'd detected a couple of typos in the Word document from which it was uploaded. I found them both - and realised that there were more as well which had escaped both me and my copy-editor. I continued reading - to the end, to check again that the new Part 6 read like a seamless continuation and not just an add-on. 
     And then I came to the last chapter - 28. And I read it.


      I couldn't believe that I'd let something through which was so inept. On so many creative writing courses down the years I've been banging on about 'showing' not 'telling', and here was I perpetrating four thousand words of unrelieved 'telling.' I was reminded of a very dismissive review of one of my books, sadly in a fairly authoritative journal, which said,"This is only true because the author says it is." 
     This opinion, I thought, was mad, witless. I defy anybody to find anything in any novel ever written which isn't only true because the author says it is. That's what fiction is and authors are for. But when I read my new chapter, I suddenly realised exactly what the reviewer meant (though I'll fight to the death anyone who says it was right about the book being reviewed).
     The agenda for this last chapter was indeed a big one. Perhaps it needed a whole book to work through it and not the few thousand words I'd allocated. What I wrote seemed all right at first but now I realised it was thin, inadequate and, worst of all, GLIB. To use the words of that long-ago reviewer, shock, rejection, withdrawal and redemption were only there because the author said they were. 
 So what to do about it? Well, rewrite and republish, of course.   But first I had to empathise with the remaining characters during the first few hours after the original, violent ending in a way I hadn't before. One is dead, another has beaten a hasty retreat and now I knew that in 1997 I was running away alongside that character because my instinct was to get the hell out of there as well. And when I came to revisiting this crucial period and see it from the inside as a virtual experience - I realised how easy it had been to gloss over it, to make it true just because I said it was.
     Well, as I write this blog now on October 4th, ten days before it will appear, I've just about finished reliving and rewriting those first hours and I feel as exhausted virtually as the characters did actually. Or do I mean fictionally?  So I'll keep a daily log of my progress and perhaps by the 14th - well, no, the 11th because we're going away for the weekend and leaving the computer behind - I'll have finished. But don't bet on it. 


Julian, glass in hand, watched her. Then he looked out of the window and saw long evening shadows darken the mellow stone of Merton Street, thought of the changelessness of certainties and felt peace, a welling pleasure and anticipation for all that he could expect in his life.

      I estimate that the future last chapter of this novel will not be Chapter 28 but Chapter 30. Three for one. Not even Tesco, Walmart or Lidl are as generous as that. 

     October 6th. I think it may be all right. I've dealt with shock and remorse.  Purgatory, punishment and cauterised detachment next and then it's only recovery and return, redemption and flawed existence to do. No sweat.  (I don't mean to sound glib again but sometimes that's what writing makes you feel.) 

October 7th.  Just entering purgatory. I'm glad I'm not really there. 

October 8th. I've finished the first movement of the process. I think and hope  it's psychologically sound.

October 10th.  I know now that I won't have finished before this blog appears. But I'm into the last chapter, the finishing straight. It should be chapter 30 but even now I'm wondering whether there won't be too much in it for just one chapter. If so, the book may end up with an odd, asymmetric number of chapters. 31 doesn't sound right somehow. 

Is this going to work? I hope so. But I've done all I can for now. Has it been a worthwhile exercise? Well, of course. Any act of self-criticism is worthwhile. If we can't be rational and detached about our own writing, how can we be about other people's? One thing is certain. I've been reminded that you can never rush anything in writing. Deadlines, especially self-imposed ones, may be a spur to action but they're sure not a guarantee of quality.

Tomorrow we leave early. I shall print out what I've done, take it with me and mull over it in any spare moments during the weekend. And on Tuesday I shall be back at it and aim to republish no later than October 20th.

AND: if anyone who has bought the first ebook version wants me to, let me know and I will send you the new last chapters as a pdf.  This will at least keep you going until we find that  something which I'm told is true proves to be -  that buyers of a first version can somehow get the new version free. 


glitter noir said…
Fine post, Dennis. For me, pure deja voodoo. I'm looking forward to checking this out.
Enjoyed reading the psychology of re-evaluation, and the diary entries there, Dennis.
It all implies that some books may take far longer to really bring to their true completion, than we at first realise.
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
Dennis, you've introduced a concern of real interest to so many of us: when do we rewrite our earlier work (since we can!), when not? In my own case, as much as my early stuff rankles, I've decided to leave it be. Sometimes revisiting the all too public flaws makes me want to do better - and maybe, just maybe, shows me a certain if modest progress. It's not really self-flagellation, but self-criticism. As Anna Hughes said recently in the Guardian piece about her self-published book Crockett's Fall, 'You really need to continually question if you're being self-critical enough while creating, but at the same time remain confident enough to press on at all times and not let your own fear or self-doubt slow you down.' Hard to find the right balance, of course, and I guess I just recognise that I've changed enough since beginning to write seriously about ten years ago (i.e. not just running away at the first sign of difficulty) that revision alone won't do it: I'd write almost entirely different novels! And it would be hard to bring the energy I had then to bear on old stuff, when my interests have more or less shifted.

All that said, some of my early characters still tease me, and from time to time I think about about sequels or at least work set in the same world(s). But this would also mean rewrting the first novels. Or would it? How much does inconsistency of this sort worry others? How much does it really matter?
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan Price said…
Some very pertinent thoughts here. I especially liked your comment, Lee. My first published novel was written when I was 16. I've been wondering whether to self-publish it. But do I dare to re-read it at all? And if I do, should I rewrite it? Would I even want to rewrite it?

As Lee says, I'm a very different writer now, and a different person. Would there be any justification for my rewriting that 16 year old's book, any more than I'd be justified in rewriting any stranger's book? Maybe the best idea would be to let the book be.
Lee said…
Gah ... sixteen?! Now I'm even more envious of your gifts!
Nick Green said…
I know. Every now and then I stop what I'm doing and think... 'SIXTEEN?' :-)

And Dennis - it's strange, isn't it? How we can write something and think, 'That'll do', and then be horrified by it later. But that's the sign of a true writer I think - the kind of person who is never horrified by their past work will never, I think, be truly much good. Everyone inevitably has peaks and trough, and we have to keep writing through the troughs. And then deal with them later, during peaks.
Lydia Bennet said…
fascinating post Dennis, I have the book but have been reading your lovely ghost stories first, I shall wait until you've changed it now! As we change we write differently, and then our perspective changes on what we did before - the great thing about ebooks is your books can change with you!
Bill Kirton said…
What a fascinating, thoughtful piece, Dennis. I don't reread very often but, when I do, I always find word-choices or expressions which could definitely be improved. In the earliest books there are sometimes more serious issues - not exactly mistakes, but characterisations or structural juxtapositions that could be improved, clarified, achieve the intended impact more powerfully. On the other hand, they must have satisfied who I was then and part of the pleasure that comes from reading this posting lies in the more general questions it poses. Today I'm older, maybe wiser (maybe not), but wouldn't rewriting them simply replace the 'truth' of that younger me with one which is preferred by the current curmudgeon and which may well change again as I encounter new enlightenments? On the other other hand, your determination to serve your characters so diligently is a great example of your integrity and a clear sign that, even if the truths which emerge are simply thus 'because you say so', they arise from a critical approach which, above all, values authenticity.

And yes, please, I'd love to know the alternative fates of G, G and J.
Dan Holloway said…
This is fascinating - and I love the madcap escapade telling of the whole incident.
I think there's a lot of wisdon in what Sue says - the danger of not letting things be is that we spend our whole lives rewriting the same novel and never move on to the next
julia jones said…
Think you're right about self-imposed deadlines - we need them but we also need to be able to disregard them. It should be easy - but it isn't. Be sure to post somewhere when the book is up again, whenever that turns out to be
Fascinating post and one that resonated with me especially. Thanks for such a perceptive piece, Dennis. I'm just finishing the first in a series of novels - of which the first two will be based on an old backlist title - one that my publisher made a hash of (me too, but they were after something I didn't really want to do and I wasn't experienced enough to see what was happening.) It has nipped away at me for years that I didn't write the book I wanted to write. (Years later, my editor apologised to me over it, so it wasn't just my perception!) It has been a pleasure to work on and continues to be a pleasure. BUT, I've considered publishing another old backlist title as an eBook - except that when I reread it, I could see so much wrong with it that I don't think I'll bother. What interests me is why I found one worthwhile and the other ... not. I'm not sure. One felt like unfinished business, but the other felt like something over and done with - part of a process that should be left well alone.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A Glittering Gem of Black, Gothic Humour: Griselda Heppel is intrigued by O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

Little Detective on the Prairie

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee